Hoist a pint of winter ale for New Year's Eve in Vancouver
Robert Burns was no teetotaller. So when, in 1788, Scotland’s national poet wrote (or borrowed) the famous line: “We’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet for auld lang syne,” it’s unlikely the vessel in question contained tea or coffee. Elsewhere in the song, he refers to a “pint-stowp”, or pint tankard, which suggests it wasn’t filled with whisky, either, but with strong ale—the kind brewed throughout Britain to help raise spirits and ward off the cold at the turn of the year.
This New Year’s Eve—Hogmanay for people in Scotland—you may want to get a few drops closer to Burns and his party muse, and toast 2011 with a winter ale or a Scotch ale.
Winter ales are dark, malty, full-bodied beers sometimes brewed with spices. Their roots go back to medieval times, when monks brewed beer for the drink’s nourishing and curative powers. They’re a natural companion to the rich foods of the holiday season, whether or not the ale is made with similar spices such as nutmeg, ginger, star anise, and cinnamon. These brews are for sipping and savouring rather than quaffing, and they’re typically quite high in alcohol content, anything from 5.5 to 10 percent.
Several locally produced examples are available at Gastown’s Alibi Room (157 Alexander Street), a fine restaurant and a beer lover’s paradise. Twenty-five top-quality brews from the West Coast are currently on tap, among them Father John’s Winter Ale from Squamish’s adventurous Howe Sound Brewery. It’s coppery-red in colour, lightly carbonated, smooth, and full in taste, made with a blend of spices. Try it with the Alibi’s charcuterie and cheese plates, which offer different selections daily. Or better still, drink it as a dessert beer to accompany the house’s wicked chocolate fondant with caramel brittle and whipped cream.
Father John’s Winter Ale is also available in one-litre bottles at LDB and private liquor stores around town. There, you’ll also find Granville Island Brewing’s copper-coloured Lions Winter Ale. At 5.5-percent alcohol, and with a low hop profile, Lions is at the light end of the winter ale scale. It’s brewed without spices and has hints of maple syrup, banana, and vanilla. The flavours come from brewmaster Vern Lambourne’s special yeasts and three barley malts.
At the recently opened London Pub (700 Main Street), you can taste a great type of beer known as Scotch ale that’s closely related to the winter ale. Believed to have its origins in Edinburgh in the 18th century, Scotch ale rapidly gained popularity due to its strength and malty character. This beer would likely have graced Burns’s pint-stowp on several New Year’s Eve carousals. Russell Brewing Company’s A Wee Angry Scotch Ale serves as a fine example of the style—dark reddish-brown in colour, lightly carbonated, with deep and complex malts and a hoppy aftertaste. It makes a great pairing with the pub’s steak and Guinness pie, which looks like a crusty tam-o’-shanter on a plate, surrounded by gravy.
An old tradition that’s been revived in Vancouver establishments in recent years is the drinking of cask-conditioned beer. As the casks need to sit undisturbed, storing and handling them requires skill. Nothing tastes as fresh and natural or holds more aromas—the way good beer would have tasted in Burns’s time—than a pint drawn from a cask.
Every Friday, London Pub co-owner Steve Jennings likes to tap a cask containing a different local brew. This Friday—New Year’s Eve—it will be R & B Brewing’s Auld Nick, an annual winter ale that this year is outstanding.
“Auld Nick is based on a Scotch ale, but we brew it stronger and don’t add spices, though there’s a generous amount of demerara sugar,” says R & B’s Rick Dellow, interviewed with cofounder Barry Benson at the Mount Pleasant brewery.
What makes a beer poured from an undisturbed cask so special? “It’s not carbonated as heavily, not filtered, and is served a little bit warmer,” says Benson. “A whole different balance of flavours come out, and we’re able to dry-hop the ale, which gives it a really nice aroma. With Auld Nick, that brings out the warming qualities. We strive to be a cask brewery, and now have 90 casks.”
R & B will soon be acquiring a couple of oak barrels to be filled with next winter’s Auld Nick. Once it’s been aged a year, the brew will be blended and sold in bottles. That’s a local future worth a New Year’s toast.